CA: Blueprint for growth changing face of Germantown
For a few quirky hours, Greentrees neighbors gathered, gabbed and gawked as the Kirby House, one-time headquarters for a three-state plantation operation, inched along and ultimately sputtered to a halt in the middle of a not-quite-wide-enough residential street. Eventually, on an overnight trek, it lumbered to its new location on Messick, several miles from its original site. The process didn’t go as planned, but in hindsight, relocation of the landmark served as a memorable sendoff of the old to make way for the new.
The home’s original tract, just inside Germantown’s city limits east of Kirby Parkway between Poplar and Poplar Pike, is part of a long-time, family-owned piece of property that’s transforming into a splashy mixed-use development, TraVure, epitomizing the changing face of Germantown. A $90 million project with offices, retail and hotel space, the Gill Properties development will serve as the city’s front porch for anyone entering Germantown from the west. It’s the cornerstone of the city’s Western Gateway, also known as the West Poplar Avenue District, one of five “nodes” of commercial growth defined in the strategic plan to guide the suburb once known for horse farms into the 21st century.
“It’s a collection of what our residents and citizens have desired over time,” Mayor Mike Palazzolo says of the city’s vision, encapsulated in its Forward 2030 plan. “We’ve done comprehensive planning three times over 20 years, so I think the citizens have fully embraced that they want to maintain the bedroom suburban community feel in their neighborhoods, but they want more of a thriving commercial district.”
Well, maybe not “fully embraced.” TraVure, which joins other high-profile projects such as the $150 million Thornwood development, Forest Hill Heights and major upgrades to the city’s Saddle Creek retail center as examples of the city’s commercial momentum, was one of the most contentious projects ever approved by Germantown. Strong opposition from residents of the gated Nottoway community to the east sullied aldermen’s unanimous approval.
And, in a broader sense, the speed of growth and inherent change that growth portends has created uneasiness, a friction manifested in municipal elections earlier this month. Charges of a lack of transparency in how the city communicates with the public before proceeding with big plans fueled challenges to two incumbent aldermen, one of whom was defeated.
Against this complicated backdrop, Germantown, traditionally thought of as one of Shelby County’s most affluent communities, is trying to find its way into a new era — an era that includes addressing the needs of a municipal school system that’s increasingly a priority for the younger demographic moving into the city.
When Germantown soon after formed its own school district along with the county’s other suburban municipalities, Jones was an even bigger fan — “I’m a firm believer that smaller is better when it comes to school districts.”
Eventually, she took the plunge and decided to get involved in the process by running for a school board seat. That’s when she began to get a clearer picture of what people think about schools and, more broadly, how their tax money is spent.
City Administrator Patrick Lawton agrees with the assessment that residents see the value of education and are willing to invest in strong schools. He notes that 98 percent of residents have at least a high school diploma, and about 66 percent have college degrees and beyond.
As superintendent of Germantown Municipal School District, it’s Jason Manuel’s job to balance school needs and wise use of money. Part of the challenge in doing so is that the district is in largely uncharted waters, where some of the conventional measures of planning for growth don’t apply.
“We don’t fit the traditional model,” Manuel said. “We’re not talking about an undeveloped area where houses are being built and people moving in. There’s not a lot of that type of development. It’s really just a change in the population you already have, and how can you predict when a couple of empty-nesters are going to decide to sell their house and downsize? That’s a hard planning document.”
One thing for sure is that growth is occurring, however unpredictable the pattern. In the three years since the district started, K-5 enrollment has increased by 544 students. Middle school enrollment jumped from 863 to 1,134 in the same period.
“We had an initial blip because we didn’t get the three Germantown schools,” Manuel said, referring to the Germantown namesake schools — Germantown High, Middle and Elementary — which remained with Shelby County Schools after Memphis surrendered its charter and the county system reorganized to incorporate the former Memphis City Schools. Most Germantown students attending those schools were absorbed into Germantown schools, accounting for the large initial enrollment bump. “But we’ve seen continued growth since then as kids have returned to public schools from private schools and from a turnover of older families moving out and younger families moving in.”
There’s no question the city, with an average age of about 46 and population of just over 41,000, is getting younger as schools draw a new mix of people into the community.
All that translates into growing needs to accommodate the growing number of students. A search is underway for a new elementary school site — a proposed site on Winchester drew flak from parents — and expansion is in progress at Riverdale Elementary, where a 64,000-square-foot addition will eliminate 23 portable classrooms and provide a middle school wing in addition to the elementary.
The city used its half-cent sales tax option to meet its required ongoing funding obligation to schools, which get money from the state and county. The system has about an $8 million reserve, Palazzolo said. The district cannot, however, issue bonds and will, therefore, always depend on what Palazzolo called a partnership with the city for capital improvements. The city budgeted $1 million to re-roof Dogwood Elementary and issued bonds for the $12 million Riverdale expansion, for which the school district will reimburse part of the cost. Then there is the cost of the new elementary school when a site is determined.
Manuel and Palazzolo each express hope the three Germantown namesake schools will eventually become part of the municipal system, but that would mean payments to Shelby County Schools for the buildings and maintenance costs associated with owning the aging structures.
To make sure it looks the way they want, Lawton said city leaders knew they needed a tax base that would support schools needs as well as other services and public amenities that people moving in, largely because of those schools, would expect. The other side of the coin, development provides entertainment, retail options and other pluses to attract and keep residents at the same time it’s contributing to the tax base.
THE TOTAL PACKAGE
As far back as the early 1990s, before a municipal school system was on the city’s radar, leaders considered how the city would move forward in an orderly way as more than a residential community.
But city leaders also knew the landlocked suburb didn’t have much room to grow outward, and that its mostly residential makeup wasn’t likely to change.
‘We have roughly 20 square miles of space,” Palazzolo said, “and about 17 of those are residential. That’ll probably never change. So roughly three square miles is commercial. Those three square miles are made up of five business districts that we call nodes.”
Along with the Western Gateway, the city has identified the Wolf River District, Central Business District, East Poplar Avenue District and Forest Hill Heights District as its clusters of commercial development.
“We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do you maximize the use of those areas?’ ” Palazzolo said. “You’ve got to get a little denser. We want walkability; we want neighborhoods close to the Central Business District, for example, to be able to get there on foot or pushing a stroller or riding a bike. That’s kind of the goal.”
Ray Gill of Gill Properties, the TraVure developer, thinks Germantown has done a good job of balancing growth with its residential history. He thinks his project — which eventually will bring together a 150,000-square-foot, five-story office building, 35,000 square feet of retail space, hotel space and restaurants — will be a good fit with the city’s desire for higher-density development on the limited property they have.
It goes back, Palazzolo said, to those lifestyle issues that bring younger families to the city in conjunction with its schools. The city must find ways to make the best use of its available property to provide what people want — and that keeps them in Germantown while providing a tax base.
Questioning younger families who moved to Germantown for schools about their desires, Palazzolo said, provides useful insight.
“I started asking them questions about why they came here in particular, and they’d say things like, ‘Well, you know, after we spent some time out here, Germantown wasn’t as boring as we thought it was,’ ” he said. “And so that makes you kind of perk up. They then started talking about greenways and bike paths and parks. We’ve got 29 parks and over 40 miles of greenway and bike paths. So those things are starting to attract the next generation here.”
The city also has developed into a medical center with four of the six largest physician practices in the region located along the Wolf River Boulevard corridor. Germantown Methodist Hospital, Campbell Clinic and West Cancer Center also are in the area .
“That just happened organically,” Lawton said. “I think it really got rolling with Campbell Clinic about 1990. They were willing to make that investment here, and it served as a springboard.”
Germantown leaders hope to draw on the successes of other communities as well, hence a field trip to Carmel, Indiana, earlier this year. Carmel, considered a model for the Smart Growth concept Germantown would like to emulate long term, reimagined things like density, land use and transportation probably 15 years before Germantown started thinking about it.